Was Genghis Khan the cruellest man who ever lived?

Frank McLynn’s latest biography is too lenient to the ‘Ruler of the Universe’, whose reign of terror was responsible for nearly 40 million deaths

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

Genghis Khan: The Man Who Conquered the World Frank McLynn

Bodley Head, pp.648, £25, ISBN: 9780224072908

From the unpromising and desperately unforgiving background that forged his iron will and boundless ambition, Temujin (as Genghis Khan was named at birth) rose to build an empire that was to range from Korea and China, through Afghanistan, Persia and Iraq and eventually to Hungary and Russia, constituting the largest contiguous land imperium in history. His was an extraordinary, epic story and Frank McLynn does it full justice in a vivid, page-turning biography.

The author portrays well the extreme hardship of the nomadic life for Genghis as boy and man on the arid Mongolian steppe, where temperatures range between 100 degrees Fahrenheit and minus 43, and where ‘one can be hit simultaneously by winds from the Siberian tundra and desert storms from the Gobi’. (Readers of Tim Cope’s excellent 2011 book On the Trail of Genghis Khan will know that even for the 21st-century traveller on horseback the region is dangerous, arduous and topographically inhospitable.)

In an environment that bred hard men, Genghis was the hardest of them all. Born in 1162 (according to McLynn; other estimates vary from 1155 to 1167), by the age of 14 he had killed his half-brother (and potential rival) in an argument over a fish and had seized back his family’s horses, stolen in a raid. He married at 16, and when a competing clan abducted and impregnated his wife Borte he assembled a large army to rescue her. In 1206 he survived a poisoned arrow in his neck, and as reward for a brutally effective military career, a noble council (quriltai) of the Mongolian clans proclaimed Temujin their leader, or ‘Genghis [Chinggis] Khan’ — often translated as ‘Ruler of the Universe’. But at that point he was just warming up.

He reformed his army, the instrument of conquest, along Manchurian lines in decimal units: ten in a platoon, 100 in a company, 1,000 in a brigade and 10,000 in a division. Their pay was plunder. The wily Genghis also created a 10,000-strong imperial guard, making the sons of his generals officers in order to guarantee ‘good behaviour’. He unleashed this vast army of over 100,000 across Asia.

McLynn has subtitled his book ‘The Man Who Conquered the World’, but he might have added ‘and Slaughtered Half of It’. First Genghis subjugated — later all but annihilated — the Tanguts of north-western China, before invading China’s powerful Jin empire in 1211. ‘Like a shark, the Mongol empire had to be in continuous forward motion’ to sustain itself. By 1213 he was in Peking. The image of Mongolian warriors as fierce horsemen sweeping across the steppe is accurate, but incomplete. When confronted by the truly formidable defences of Peking, Genghis demonstrated great patience and resolve, starving the city into submission in 1215. The inevitable resulting sack ‘was one of the most seismic and traumatic events in Chinese history’.

From there his armies moved west and targeted Persia in 1219, where the Sultan had, in an act of extreme foolhardiness, deliberately provoked Genghis by shaving off the beards of two of his ambassadors and killing a third. Samarkand, that glorious city on the Silk Road, fell in 1220, despite the defenders’ super-weapon of two dozen war elephants. McLynn dismisses the oft-quoted figure of 50,000 killed there in a single day (note the limited time span), but admits ‘it is clear that the death toll was terrific and unacceptable’.

Worse was to come in 1221 — ‘a year to live in infamy’. While Genghis’s other armies had been busy in the east, threatening Tbilisi in Georgia and terrifying the Christian world, Tolui, one of Genghis’s equally reprehensible sons, took Merv (in modern-day Turkmenistan), one of the largest cities in the world. Promised safety, the citizens surrendered and emerged from behind their walls. Tolui ‘surveyed the masses dolefully gathered with their possessions, mounted a golden chair and ordered mass executions to commence’. They took four days and nights to complete. Genghis’s rotten fruit did not fall far from the tree.

Terror — and the certainty of its visitation — was a major weapon in Genghis’s arsenal: decapitated women, children and even cats and dogs were reputedly displayed. But while the butchery was indeed immense, it is worth questioning its extent on occasion: a depopulated city had little economic value, and imported colonisers could make up only so much of the shortfall.

McLynn is always careful not to be caught up in the hyperbole of mortality figures, settling on the ‘convincing’, but still sobering, total of 37.5 million deaths attributed to Genghis’s wars. He is right to stress the unprecedented scale of the carnage the genocidal Genghis wrought on his enemies, but perhaps is a little lenient in judging that ‘he exceeded in degree but not in kind the other killers of his age’. Numbers do count.

Genghis ended his blood-soaked career crushing a rebellion in 1226 with yet another trademark massacre. He died the following year — as his enemies pronounced him, ‘Accursed of God’.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20, Tel: 08430 600033. Sean McGlynn is the author of By Sword and Fire: Cruelty and Atrocity in Medieval Warfare.

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Show comments
  • Jake Maier

    I read a very different take on Genghis Khan in a book by Jack Weatherford.

    • eldl1989

      I’m glad this was mentioned. But Weatherford never stated that he didn’t massacre, nor did he try to lower the global death toll. Nor does McLynn for that matter (even the article states that he thinks it’s unacceptable)!

      What the Spectator wants is scathing venomous hatred and statements like “Genghis is a disgraceful mass murderer”, preferably alongside facts and figures, although these don’t matter if ultimately the sentiment of moral outrage is there.

  • Gilbert White

    Post revisionist history. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait adopted ISIS tactics decades ago .The Mongol momentum based on terror was unstoppable until we invented the Gatling gun to deal with the world’s noble savages. Our ambulance chasing lawyers never punished the Iraqis who were collectively responsible in Kuwait. Perhaps Allah is punishing them now like the Pakistanis and Syrians. With regard to Genghis I am all for riding your enemies women and sleeping with your enemies horses.

    • davidofkent


    • Albert Zbingswiki

      … dafuq did I just read?

    • eldl1989

      “Post revisionist history.” Got some evidence for us Gilbz?

  • Stevie Mac

    This makes the case he was the most homicidal, not the cruelest.

  • Gergiev

    Am I the only one to see more than a passing resemblance to George Galloway in this image of Genghis Khan?

    • bombaybadboy
    • Ποια είναι αλήθει


    • Alexsau91

      No. No you’re not. I knew the man was familiar, turns out their similarities extend attitude to foreign policy and murderous dictators, to a curious likeness.

      If Galloway wasn’t such an Islamic fanboy, but rather had an obsession with Hinduism, it would be feasible to consider reincarnation…

    • edlancey

      No doubt, if Genghis Khan was around today, GG would be saluting his indefatigability.

  • ‘decapitating cats and dogs’…not surprised.

    • Grant Melville

      It would seem that Mr Khan was neither a cat person, nor a dog person. Nor a people person, for that matter!

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return”

  • The Masked Marvel

    Oh, my, what blasphemy! As all BBC-trained members of the public know, Genghis Khan created a tolerant, multicultural empire where all religions co-existed peacefully. Whatever naughty things he did were learned from or in response to actions by the Christian West, of course.

    • eldl1989

      Please direct me to these straw men, I need to have a chat with them to find out about this lunacy.

      • The Masked Marvel
        • eldl1989

          “Whatever naughty things he did were learned from or in response to actions by the Christian West, of course.”

          I didn’t hear that.

    • Danlantic

      No, he was more like a cowboy adventurer. Well, that’s the way John Wayne played him.

  • pp22pp

    Genghis Khan was not white so he cannot have been all bad. He was probably driven to all by all the microaggressions he suffered at college.

    • Zimbalist

      I think it was the poverty that did it; it radicalised him.

      • Verk

        And because the government did not correctly and sufficiently engage with him.

    • Johnny Foreigner

      Where was his safe place?

    • CouchSlob

      This place is like the anti-Guardian. Same calibre of obsessed swivel-eyed geek, just with the polarity reversed.

      • pp22pp

        No, Speccie geeks we’re much more fun than Guardian geeks. We enjoy comfort, good food and wine – no Fair Trade quinoa sandwiches on wholemeal bread. Come and join us. We also tend to shave and rarely if ever wear donkey jackets. Alot of us are also tall – maybe because we weren’t fed tofu burgers as children.

        • justejudexultionis

          One stupid ad hominem after another (and no, I don’t particularly like the Guardian).

          • pp22pp

            It wasn’t ad hominem.

          • justejudexultionis

            It was, at the very least, a silly caricature of that most elusive of species, ‘the Guardian reader’.

          • pp22pp

            I used to be a university lecturer. The common room only had the Guardian and most of my colleagues had an aversion to razors.

          • pp22pp

            Do you know what ad hominem means?

  • Albert Zbingswiki

    Any violence or cruelty by the wonderful Mr Khan has, and I want to be absolutely clear about this, Nothing To Do With…
    Oh, no, sorry. Reflex reaction. With all that death and destruction, thought it was linked to something else.
    Gosh, I’m a horrible ‘phobe.

  • If he had wiped out Islam it would have been worth it.

    • eldl1989

      He devastated the Islamic state setting it back decades, if not centuries.

      You must know from history that no religious culture can be wiped out. See Judaism.

      • Dave Cockayne

        Thousands of religions have been wiped out, how many people worship Zeus today?

        • justejudexultionis

          My grocer in Peckham does.

        • eldl1989

          That wasn’t engineered to be wiped out in the same way people have attempted to wipe out Jews. It was a case of long-term ideological and cultural change.

      • Danlantic

        The Iranians and then ISIS just got rid of the Yezidis.

        • eldl1989

          As far as I know they still exist. If not, maybe look at altering the wiki page?

    • Danlantic

      The matter of an alliance with the Moslems against the Mongols was brought up in the Parliament. The argument that carried the day was, “Let the dogs kill each other.”

      • Genghis didn’t leave an ideology. The world would have been a better place if he’d gone all the way to Mecca and smashed everything in sight.

  • Curnonsky

    Poor Ghengis – 40 million still puts him behind Stalin and Mao. Perhaps if he had the benefit of a proper Marxist education he could have mounted that top step.

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  • eldl1989

    “He is right to stress the unprecedented scale of the carnage the genocidal Genghis wrought on his enemies, but perhaps is a little lenient in judging that ‘he exceeded in degree but not in kind the other killers of his age’. Numbers do count.”

    Of course they count, and McLynn isn’t suggesting otherwise.

    Perhaps we could be enlightened about the tactics of the other killers of the age?

    Page 116 of Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World kindly enlightens us:

    “Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who ranks as one of Germany’s greatest historical and cultural heroes, best exemplified the use of terror in the West. When he tried to conquer the Lombard city of Cremona in the north of modern Italy in 1160, he instituted an escalating series of violent acts of terror. His men beheaded their prisoners and played with the heads outside the city walls, kicking them like balls. The defenders of Cremona then brought out their German prisoners on the city walls and pulled their limbs off in front of their comrades. The Germans gathered more prisoners and executed them in a mass hanging. The city officials responded by hanging the remainder of their prisoners on top of the city walls. Instead of fighting each other directly, the two armies continued their escalation of terror. The Germans then gathered captive children and strapped them into their catapults, which were normally used to batter down walls and break through gates. With the power of these great siege machines, they hurled the living children at the city walls.”

    This is on top of the Byzantine Basil blinding 15,000 Bulgarian war captives, leaving one man of each 100 with one eye to lead the other 99 home, and Christians slaughtering Jews and Muslims regardless of age or gender, simply because of their religion.

    I’d say numbers matter a lot less than method and intent. “[H]e exceeded in degree but not in kind the other killers of his age” is very likely a fair comment.

    This in no way justifies Genghis, but the charges leveled against McLynn are probably unfair.

  • Charles Hatvani

    In Mongolia he is probably celebrated as a hero.

    • David Underwood

      I agree. Just as we celebrate Cornwallis, Clive, Warren Hastings, Dalhousie, Curzon and Macaulay … to name a few of the imperialists who raped and pillaged the world in the name of God, Country and Monarch.
      ‘Rule Britannia … Britannia Rules The Waves!
      Britons never ever shall be slaves!’ etc. etc. etc.

      • Father Onabit

        I don’t celebrate any of those people. You may.

  • justejudexultionis

    Gengis Khan sounds like the kind of eastern despot that Tony Blair would be able to do business with.

    • Fraser Bailey

      Tony and Cherie would have walked there to meet him and sing his praises if they thought there was some money in it.

      • You’re thinking of the Clintons.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      Plus the sort of no nonsense business driven state that Jim O Neill would lump in to his Brics and Mint acronyms.

  • Fraser Bailey

    To be fair, my understanding is that he was also responsible for about 40 million births as well. So it all evens out.

    • Mary Ann

      On the whole, I think I would rather have not met him.

  • Rabbi D R Jerkins

    In the top 10, possibly, but this guy was a boy scout compared to Mohammed.